Advancing University Collections without a Museum

By Shikoh Shiraiwa

Paintinf of Lot and his Daughter
Lot and His Daughter
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Melton Legacy Collection

The University of Central Oklahoma (UCO) is located in Edmond, Oklahoma, USA. I started working at the Archives and Special Collections (UCO Archives) in October 2016. The UCO Archives is a part of the university’s Max Chambers Library. As the university does not have a museum or dedicated gallery space for the permanent collections, the UCO Archives took an initiative to be a caretaker of the university’s most significant visual objects, supported by the university president. I am as an Archives Specialist with museum study background, my job is to manage a variety of collections; including Melton Legacy Collection (sixteenth to twentieth-century European and American art, e.g., Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Studio of El Greco, Edvard Munch, and Grant Wood), African Art Collection (more than 1,300 visual objects, representing more than 100 cultures and societies from twenty-one different nations,) Oklahoma Art Collection (more than 400 art objects including Native American Art,) and others. After few years of reorganizing the collection management system and developing new educational programs, we officially opened the “UCO Collections Exhibition” in October 2018 at the Library.

Leopard Royal Stool Cameroon Grasslands African Art Collection
Leopard Royal Stool, Cameroon Grasslands, African Art Collection

“UCO Collections Exhibition” is a collaborative and experimental exhibition, partnering with various departments and colleges on campus, including history collection from the History and Geography Department, natural history collection from the Biology Department, fashion collection from the College of Education and Professional Studies, and research posters from Global Art and Visual Culture program. This collaboration enhances the visibility of the university’s collection, as well as, developing further academic programs utilizing the collections.

A total of nine different collections are

Fashion Collection and African Art Collection
Fashion Collection and African Art Collection

exhibited; Melton Legacy Collection, African Art Collection, Oceanic Art Collection, Central and South American Art Collection (including Mayan and Inca objects), Oklahoma Art Collection, Bob and Kathy Thomas Collection (twentieth and twenty-first century American West and Native American Art), Fashion Collection, History Collection, and Natural History Collection. All of the objects are displayed in the glass cases on the same floor, which protects the objects.

Natural History Collection, History Collection, and student research posters
Natural History Collection, History Collection, and student research posters

One of the main ideas of this exhibition was every object displayed in the same glass cases equally next to each other. Often the cultural objects are categorized through the sociocultural, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic bias creating a hierarchy on the cultures and societies through the Euro-centric perspective as museums are frequently separated into fine art, anthropology, natural history, and so on. In this exhibition, African, Oceanic, Native American, and Central and South American art objects are displayed next to paintings by Rubens, Thomas Moran, and Grant Wood, challenging the audience to see all the cultural objects as equal indicating there are various ideas of aesthetic, form, and meaning in different cultures and societies.

Another significant element of this exhibition was to introduce revised African Art Collection description, which is acknowledging the interpretations of the African cultures are often standardized through the narrative of Euro-centric aesthetics, material culture, and sociopolitical system.

The Chambers library states, “It is imperative for all of us to remember the majority of the African artworks are not created to be displayed in a museum and gallery settings. Most of the African objects here at UCO have been taken out of context.” “Chambers Library would like to acknowledge this tremendous paradox of “displaying” African regalia in a

Yoruba’s visual objects from African Art Collection with Thomas Moran painting from Melton Legacy Collection
Yoruba’s visual objects from African Art Collection with Thomas Moran painting from Melton Legacy Collection

museum setting. Also, in general, the Library acknowledges the complex sociopolitical relationship often creating issues between Western narratives (as they are often understood as a universal standard) towards Non-Western objects, such as African and Native American objects. We are determined to continue researching and pursuing the best practice to care for these collections and we are constantly reevaluate proper display methods.”